Interview: Free Books is on a mission to enrich inmates’ lives

Genevieve Diesing, Communications Director at Free Books

Free Books is a Chicago based organization that provides no-cost books to correctional institutions across the United States. So far, their reach extends to prison libraries in eight states. They aim to enrich inmates’ lives and chances of success upon release by providing access to literature.

I talked to Gabriel Galloway, Esq., founder of Free Books and criminal rights attorney, and Genevieve Diesing, communications director, about the mission, growth, and success of their grassroots organization, and how others can get involved with Free Books.

Could you talk a little about your role at Free Books, and how you serve the organization’s mission through your work?

Genevieve Diesing: I’m the Communications Director at Free Books. My colleague, Gabe Galloway, is a criminal rights attorney who founded the organization in 2011. I came onboard to help with event planning and ended up taking on a bigger role with public relations and helping select and ship the books to various prisons. It’s just us two right now.

We originally called ourselves Prison Resources, but rebranded as Free Books earlier this year to better reflect our mission.

How has Free Books changed or grown in the time you’ve been there?

GD: Although we are still very much a grassroots organization, we have been able to make a tremendous impact in the short time we’ve been around. We have worked with prison libraries in eight states and counting, and our library of available materials continues to grow. We are very appreciative of the fact that our cause resonates with so many people, and have been the direct recipients of hundreds of books. While we can’t ship every book we receive (we find that inmates have greater needs for self-help materials and prefer light, current reading over, say, obscure literature) we do appreciate each and every single book that is donated. If anything, we can use those books to trade for the kind of materials that are really in demand in prison libraries across the United States.

In what condition have you found the prison libraries you’ve worked with?

Gabriel Galloway: In our experience, correctional libraries vary greatly in their size and the scope of the services they provide. Some libraries in jails are as basic as being a single book cart that may be limited to used bestsellers, and stocked by a prison guard, but some larger facilities have extensive libraries with extensive collections of fiction and non-fiction, and even audio and video collections, that are well-curates by professional librarians.

In your experience, what significance does having access to reading materials have to people in prison?

GG: In my experience, reading materials are greatly appreciated, even prized by incarcerated people. To many inmates, reading materials present with the best opportunity to expand their world beyond the confines of their institution, and to escape the drudgery of prison life.

Are there specific genres of books that are most needed or in demand, and are there any books you have to reject?

GG: We accept all books with no exceptions. The books that are most in demand are contemporary fiction (especially genre fiction such as True Crime, Mystery and Detective, Horror, Sci-Fi, Romance, Urban) and contemporary non-fiction (especially self-help, anger management, and spiritual titles, as well as books on current issues and on job search and job skills). We also try to place classic literature like Fitzgerald or Tolstoy. But we also accept books that we would not expect to be able to place and trade them for more popular titles.

Are you seeking volunteers? If so, what would that position involve?

GG: We could definitely use volunteers on an event-by-event basis, to help us conduct PR events or fundraisers, or to help us pack shipments to send to prisons. Interested persons should contact freebooksPR (at) gmail (dot) com.

Are there any additional resources you’d recommend to people interested in working for inmate rights?

GG: I would suggest that anyone interested in advocating for inmate rights should contact their representatives in Washington or their state capitol and voice their concerns. Inmates are a disenfranchised group, and former inmates generally cannot vote. If legislation and policies are to improve, we need to help.

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